I come from a faith which holds study as one of its highest values. For over two thousand years, Jews across the world have been studying Judaism’s holiest texts: the Tenach (Hebrew Bible), the Mishna, the Talmud and thousands of other texts. As the Jews have moved and been moved around the world, in their dogged commitment to study and scholarship they have surely lived up to their title as the “people of the book.” Study is considered an act of divine service, and the finest minds have always ascended to positions of authority and communal reverence.
Like many British Jews, when I finished school I went to study at a Yeshiva in Israel. A Yeshiva is a place of learning and the pursuit of knowledge. There, for over thirteen hours a day, six days a week, I sat and studied. I studied the bible, I studied the Talmud, I studied philosophy and I studied various codes of law.
But I did not study alone. Normally, I would study with a havruta, a study-partner. This is the traditional way to study such texts, with a peer. Together you attempt to decipher these incredibly complicated texts and uncover their meaning. Your havruta is there to sharpen your thought, to clarify your understanding and, ultimately, to hold you accountable to the text you are studying. If your logic is flawed, it is your havruta’s job to point this out. If you have been lazy in fleshing out your theories, it is down to your havruta to spur you on.
We’ve been studying like this for a long time. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Yohanan (d. 279CE) sank into such a deep depression after his havruta died that he himself passed from this world (the whole story is below). A good havruta is a powerful tool for learning.
So how is this relevant to this blog?
A couple of weeks ago, I floated my science knowledge organiser for covalent bonding. I got some really great feedback from which I sharpened my thinking. My main goal became about using the KO to support good quality retrieval practice.
So I took a group of about ten students from our triple science cohorts. These were students who had relatively low targets and had shown from assessments to be lacking in fundamental knowledge and vocabulary. Over the course of three successive weeks we came together as a group and split off into pairs. In their pairs, I tried to coach the students to hold each other accountable. To ask questions based on the KO but, most importantly, to hold each other accountable; to accept nothing less than perfection in terms of their responses.
Did it work? Obviously it is hard to tell and this is far from a randomised control trial. But by the third week the students’ responses were excellent. Really excellent. They clearly understood what they were saying and could answer follow-up questions from me. The quality of the dialogue between the study pair was extremely high and far beyond anything which I had seen from these students in class up until this point.
Whether or not this is something scalable is another question. We worked as a small group, outside of lesson time. Could students be coached to work together in this way? Maybe. Could we roll it out further into new topics and make it a routine part of the lesson? Maybe. How good an intervention is it really? When weighing up the opportunity cost is this what we want to sink our time-resources into? I don’t know.
My department is currently strapped for time and we’re making a lot of changes at the moment. I don’t think I’m going to be able to expand this mini-project right now, but it’s definitely something for me to think about going forward.
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia, 84a
Resh Lakish died, and R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Johanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha (a saying of earlier rabbis) which Supports you.’
‘Are you as the son of Lakisha?’22 he complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, “A Baraitha has been taught which supports you:” do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.